|The Irish Witch;
Century Hutchinson, London, August 1988
Long ago (in the forties) and far away (in Poverty Bay, New Zealand, to be exact) I was admitted to hospital. And I was terrified. In those days the medical profession was not as forthcoming as it is today, especially to ten-year-olds, and I had no idea what was about to happen to me. I expected every trolley that rumbled down the ward to bear me away to some surgical torture chamber where my face would be engulfed by a black rubber ether mask. Such was the state of my imagination that the slightest groan from behind a screen became a death rattle. Finally sandbags were used to pin me down and it was a year before I sat upright again, immobilization being the treatment for the unromantically named Potts Disease. But as I lay sandbagged an unexpected friend came to comfort me.
His name was the Duke de Richleau!
I could still use my hands and I began to read my father’s copy of The Devil Rides Out by holding it a few inches above my nose. Within minutes it was the hospital that seemed unreal – the domain of my imagination was peopled by such vivid characters as the Duke, Simon Aron, Rex van Ryn and Richard Eaton. And what did my personal apprehension matter compared to their titanic struggle against the Power of Evil!
By the time I reached the thrilling climax I had adjusted to my new surroundings. From then on my father kept me supplied with books, including all the Wheatley novels available, and mentally I roved free in worlds conjured up by the printed page. I have no doubt that was what triggered the ambition to become a novelist myself.
Just before his death in 1977 Dennis Wheatley declared that the most satisfactory aspect of his literary career was the thousands of letters of thanks he had received from people in hospital who had obviously found the same delicious escapism as me. Curiously it was to escape stress that he discovered his potential as an author. After serving as an artillery officer in the First World War he joined – and finally become head of – the family wine firm. The slump at the beginning of the thirties hit the business and in order to avoid bankruptcy he allowed the business to be taken over by a larger firm in return for a seat on the board and the settlement of liabilities. As he had been using his own money to keep creditors at bay it was agreed that his personal overdraft should be included in these. Unfortunately he had no evidence of this undertaking and a bombshell came when he was suspended and accused of illegally obtaining thousands of pounds in the transaction.
Months of legal wrangling followed during which he could not earn a living as a wine merchant and was haunted by the thought that he might go to jail for fraud. It was in the blackest days that his wife Joan, who was to become a novelist herself, suggested that as he had once amused himself by writing short stories, he might take his mind off his problems by trying his hand at a novel. After all, he had nothing else to do.
With pencil and India rubber he began a murder thriller in which the Duke de Richleau, Simon Aron and Rex Van Ryn were the main characters. Joan typed it and an agent sold it to Hutchinson. He was so encouraged that he immediately set to work on another book using the same characters. When finished it was regarded as so much better than the murder thriller that it was published as his first book. It was entitled The Forbidden Territory and really did become an overnight best-seller. Demand was such that half the copies from the first printing were rushed to bookshops before their endpaper maps could be pasted down. It was then reprinted seven times in seven weeks and Dennis Wheatley was established as a novelist.
Ironically a document turned up which exonerated him over the transaction with the wine firm, and one wonders if it had been discovered earlier whether the seventy-odd Wheatley books would ever have been produced. Luckily they were – in thirty languages including Thulu! – and they sold in their millions. The key to such success was a combination of rattling good stories woven against painstakingly researched backgrounds.
‘My books were, on average, about 160,000 words which is over twice the length of the ordinary thriller,’ Wheatley wrote. ‘But the fact my books were not ordinary thrillers was the secret of their success. Actually to create each book I wrote and combined two. One of these would consist of a history of Ceylon or Mexico, or of a period in the Napoleonic or Hitler wars. Into these factual accounts I wove a spy story, desperate situations and boy jumping into bed with girl.’
Added to this formula was sheer hard work. When engaged on a novel he wrote for thirteen hours a day six days a week.
Towards the end of the Second World War, when Dennis Wheatley was on the Joint Planning Staff, Air Commodore Kenneth Collier asked him what he would be writing when he returned to normal life.
‘By becoming a member of the JPS I’ve landed myself in a pretty mess,’ he replied. ‘During the last two years I have been given access to every sort of secret and the way in which our Intelligence systems really work. The war produced scores of plots I could have used, but now I daren’t or I’ll find myself in the Tower for having infringed the Official Secrets Act.’
‘All you have to do is create a hero who lived in Napoleonic times,’ said Collier. ‘Then you can use any exciting episodes you have learned about in the war and no one will be able to lay a finger on you.’
In 1946 the Regency spy Roger Brook was launched. About him the author wrote: ‘Often I get letters from readers suggesting that the Duke de Richleau is a copy of myself. That is very flattering . . . he rivals Roger Brook as my favourite character. Had I lived in his age I would like to have been Roger, but, alas, I would have lacked his courage.’
And so we meet Roger Brook again in The Irish Witch. It is vintage Wheatley with passionate romance and adventures set against such diverse backgrounds as the wilds of North America and the Napoleonic Wars in Europe. Seasoned with a dash of Black Magic, it is held together by the resourceful Mr Brook who on the last page finally receives his just reward.
Having once more dipped into the world of Dennis Wheatley, I – and that little boy in a hospital bed forty years ago – say thank you to the memory of the man whose tombstone is inscribed ‘Prince of Thriller Writers’.
MARK RONSON 1988